Jun 102015


I begin the class with a “what do you notice?” “what do you wonder?” session. This is probably the 5th or 6th day of class, and sets the stage for the entire rest of year. What do you notice? What do you wonder? I document all the noticings and wonderings, and then we discuss the mathematical questions.

Every year, the question of “I wonder how the 2 and the 1/2,” “I wonder how the 3 and the 1/3,” are related is asked. The best two questions that are always asked are, “Why are they all the same?” and “What changes when we change the exponent from 1 to 6?” I always say that I will answer every question by the end of the year; I will never lie to them and tell them something is impossible when it isn’t, but that some of their questions may need to be addressed in a future math class and not this math class. That honesty goes a long way.

I spend an entire period exploring the different functions with them, showing graphs on Desmos, asking for values to put in for a, h, and k. I ask questions like, “what do you predict the h will do?” and “Did your prediction come true?” The learners who are the typical aggressive type A learners hate it because they want the answers and want it now, but they will come around and start developing ideas on their own.

I start with lines for the (h,k) form because I think this form shows some reasons why to use the form, the benefits of using the (h,k) form over y=mx+b, as well as a simple function to cut our teeth on vocab.

I introduce this form first thing in the year as we get started. Fully Explaining & Understanding functions blank (double sided .docx file). I print off hundreds of this form, and we use it regularly. Some days I have the learners write the functions in their notebooks when I don’t have the forms, but I try to have a stack on hand always.

explaining This is what it looks like. There is A LOT of info asked for, and I start with lines so we can establish the understand of what the different elements are.

It always bugged me that we rarely talk about domain and range of lines. Why not? Why start introducing that idea with absolute value? Just because that is where it changes from all real numbers for both to only one, does not mean we shouldn’t introduce it earlier. Same thing with asymptotes and even/odd functions.

If I can get learners to identify the x and y intercepts on the line, and then connect those points with the standard form, so much the better.

Same thing with intercept and (h,k) form. Cut the teeth on a line, that is familiar and safe, so that as we move forward with quadratics, cubics, cube roots, etc, the learners can see the vocabulary does not change. What changes is the shape of the parent function.

I make sure every learner has one copy of this that is complete, pristine, written clearly and fully in their notes for every single function. When the learner puts them all side by side, they can see there is only one math, one set of ideas through the entire year. What changes is the amount of effort needed to get the intercepts for a cubic vs intercepts for a line? Why?

Another rich focus of questioning is “What makes the line unique?” “What makes the quadratic or cubic unique?” Some answers I have received are, “Only the quadratic always has a vertex form. The cubics can have that form, but usually not,” or “Every point on the line is a critical point, but we can’t always use every point for other graphs.”

Or can we? Hmmm. Leave it at that. Don’t tell them. Plant the seed and let it grow on its own.

This is a big picture post. Philosophy of teaching, approach to the topics, etc. No details yet. Just a pouring out of my thoughts on how I start. I will go more in depth. Notice that there is not enough room to work on the page. Only the results go there. The work is separate.


May 302015

I tried to do a 180 blog, and made it to 90. I really don’t know how people like Justin Aion and Sam Shah do it. It is very difficult to find something to day for 180 days without it sounding boring and forced. They pull it off though. That is amazing.

Knowing I can’t pull of the 180 thing isn’t bad, however. I know I can do topics, and I have a topic I really want to crystallize for myself (as well as others.) I have really been toying with the idea of “one maths” the last three years, and I convinced / forced one of my fellow teachers in my building to start doing it as well. The results are amazing. The connections between the different topics are astounding, and the learners see them, are motivated by them, and create further connections as well. To see why the connections are so important, one just needs to read this “Math with Bad Drawings” post. The connections are vital.

Some tools I will use regularly in class.

1. The Three Essential Rules – from day one, these are the only “rules” I will ever talk about. Log “rules”? Nope, don’t have them. Those are shortcuts to understanding why the properties of logs work. Exponent rules? Nope, nothing more than shortcuts. The only rules we will ever explicitly say are these three: Additive Identity, Multiplicative Identity, and balancing equations. How I implemented them can be found here.

2. Desmos.com – This is the first website I load every morning as I get ready for my day. It is essential to visualizing and discussing function families. The main difficulty I have with desmos is I have so many ‘files’ created it is hard to find them all! That is a great problem to have I think.

3. My structure of functions: This is how I organize the entire year. We move from topic to topic, but as we move, the connection to the prior topic is constantly referred to and stressed.Functions
This list is the core of the connections I want to explore and develop this summer.

Some things I want to make explicit for myself.

1. How to connect this list to the CCSS standards and Essential Understandings explicitly.

2. How to connect each step to prior knowledge in a stronger way.

3. How to connect each step with the breadth of knowledge required (for example, quadratics have many ways to solve).

4. Finally, why in the first place! It seems odd to put the why at the end, but I think it is easier to think about the why once it is all laid out. Does this curriculum have an advantage over the standard “textbook” curriculum? Anecdotal evidence suggests yes, but it needs to be better explained before others can weigh in.

It is a large project, but well worth doing. I think it will really make me understand the mathematics better, and enhance my teaching tremendously.


I better not slack off. Lisa and Meg both called me out. http://www.teachesmath.com/?p=765 and http://www.megcraig.org/?p=394. Stay focused Glenn!

Jan 172015

Nothing annoys me more in teaching math than a bunch of rules to memorize, and rational function come with their own complete set of rules to memorize. I really find that annoying, and I have been on a personal quest to make sense of algebra through a combined set of understandings that will bring comprehension, not rule following.

I have found that in large part through the (h,k) form of the algebraic functions (and here too). Not just a little, but the (h,k) form now drives my entire instruction to the point where my learners are asking me first “how do we undo this” instead of “what chapter is this” as we are learning the math.

So, rational functions. How do the “rules” of horizontal asymptotes fit for rational functions. I really struggled with this the first year I was working on the translations and (h,k) ideas, but this year it all fell into place.

Lets take two functions, f(x) and g(x) where the highest degree is m for the numerator and n for the denominator (just keeping things in alphabetical order).

The rules that everyone knows and hates:

If m=n, then horizontal asymptote is: y=a/b where a and b are the leading coefficients of the numerator and denominator.
If m>n, then there is no H asymptote [or some books say if m=n+1 then there is a slant asymptote]
if m<n, then H asymptote is: y=0.

Okay, I hate these. I really wanted to understand why, and I fully understood when I explored how to get any rational function into the (h,k) form. How do you do that, you ask? Simple. You do the long division and rewrite the equation in the new form.

First off, though, we need some functions to explore. I have a Desmos file with 1600 different possible rational functions:
 Seriously, 1600 possible functions. 40 for numerator and same 40 for denominator.

I tried typing it all out, but failed, so I wrote it out and took a picture:

2015-01-17 16.05.06

What we see is that the ‘k’ value is always the horizontal asymptote. What we also see, is that there is ALWAYS an asymptote when m>n, and sometimes it is a linear slant. It also, can be a quadratic slant, or cubic slant. What is important is that the horizontal asymptote is a way to discuss the END BEHAVIOR of the curve. If we have a slant asymptote, what is happening is the original function is approaching the value of another function instead of a constant.

Rock my world.

So, 2x^4 +3x^3-2x^2 + 5 divided by 2x^2+4x-2 gives us a ‘k’ of x^2 -.5x +1. The “slant” asymptote is a quadratic function.

2015-01-17 17.14.21Here is the math:
 and the Desmos file.

What is amazing here is the long division and putting the function into (h,k) form means you do not have to remember ANY rules with rational functions. It also means there is a reason to teach long division of functions as well.

If our goal is to create a unified, sense-making structure in algebra, this is how it is done.

Let me know if I have made a mistake somewhere or there are flaws in my thinking. This is one piece of the larger structure I am seeing with this approach to algebra, and I really want to push the envelop and limits of of the method.
At this point, what I see is that the “rules” of horizontal asymptotes are nothing more than tricks. The math is the long division and rewriting the function into the (h,k) form to show the translations, and reflection.

In addition, if you look at the functions I used in the explanation above (the first picture I used), you will see that only when the function is put in (h,k) for does the reason for the reflection show up. If the function is left in standard form, the reflection is hidden.

Nix the Tricks! This is the reason.

Nov 062014

I haven’t posted in a while, mainly because I am just so happy with how my classes are going. I will focus on Alg 2 here, because these awesome learners are just knocking my socks off.

I am in the polynomial unit, knee deep in graphing, and increasing, decreasing, relative mins, relative max’s, absolute mins, etc. This is the problem set we were working on today in class:


Here are the questions I ask (docx format) for every single graph, from lines all the way through sin & cos at the end of the year.

Yes, some of these are going to be Does Not Exist. That is okay. Just because we don’t need to think about asymptotes with cubics does not mean we shouldn’t ask about them.

A little back story before I say something about my learners. I used to teach the textbook. I admit it. I sucked, horribly. My learners did not connect anything with anything and they did not see how to connect topic from one unit to the next. I was frustrated. So I first came up with my list of functions in (h,k) form, wrote it on my board and changed how I approached algebra.

2014-08-10 15.43.46

That was a win. But, then I was frustrated because every time I changed the graph, added an exponent, I had to teach a new set of vocab, but everything was the same; so why was I teaching new stuff? Why couldn’t I teach all the vocab up front, and then just explore the heck out of each function family?

Short answer was, I could. So, I did. That is where the form above came from. I introduced it last last year, and used it and modified it and tweaked it and the learners responded.

Enter this year, this class. I have everything set on day 1. We entered the year thinking about connections and planning our math and discussing end behaviors of lines (wow, that was easy, hey, they are always the same!, etc). Then quadratics, and we completed the square to get vertex forms, and we factored, and saw how intercept, standard and vertex forms were all the same function, and and and.

Enter polynomials.

We have done them from standard form, and done the division to get intercept form, we have broken these guys down every which way. I have tossed them fifth degree and fourth degree polynomials, they didn’t even blink. “Oh, so this just adds a hump to it.” I have explored more in polynomials this year than ever before.

And, since it is a constant review of prior material (“If this works with quartics, will it work with quadratics too? Yes”) I am constantly cycling and eliminating the mistakes my learners made in previous sections and on previous exams.

Which brings us to the problem set above. That is a killer set. The 4th and 5th are tricky, and they struggled. Until one of the class members said, “Don’t all we have to do is distribute them and so it is just a bigger distribution problem?”

Done. And. Done.

Now, of course there is a nicer way to do it. Substitute “u” or some other variable in for (x-3) in the fourth problem so you are multiplying binomials first. It saves time. BUT, it was not necessary to show it. They know distributing, so distributing is what works and they rocked the socks of of it.

So, why have I not been posting much? Because I have been enjoying the heck out of teaching. These learners are taking these ideas and running with them.  And I love it and them.

Aug 032014

At TMC14 (Twitter Math Camp 2014) this year I did not attend many sessions, because I was the co-lead or lead in several blocks of time. It was great, and the comments I received were very complementary. I think the teachers telling me that were just being nice a little bit, but I hope they did receive some benefit from attending. With that said, the first thing I want to do in my TMC Recap posts is communicate some of what occurred in the sessions.

First up, Algebra 2. I co-led these sessions (there were 3 days of 2 hours each) with Jonathon Claydon (@rawrdimas) who blogs over at InfiniteSums. The 3 days were split into the following structure. Day 1 was about how to teach algebra 2 with some structure and form so that you can connect all the disparate topics of Alg 2. Day 2 was about a different way of cycling through the topics to allow for constant review and building of knowledge (pivot algebra), while day 3 as all about modeling.

Day 1 started off with the question, “How do you currently teach alg 2?” We had several answer. Graphing all the parent functions and creating a hook to hang the rest of the year that way (Family of Functions), or solving the equations and connecting the graphs later (equations first), going through the textbook units and color coding them, and then I introduced my (h, k) format. There was great interest in the (h, k) structure so we spent the rest of the time on that method.

What is that method, you ask? Well, on my board under the heading of Algebra 2, I have the following forms written down:


First off, what do you notice and wonder about all these forms? Yes, I do ask that and spend some class time on the noticings and wonderings about this list. I actually have a “You are Here” note that moves from one to the next to the next as we go through Alg 2 and I make a big deal about that move.

The really nice thing about organizing the class in this way is that clearly the learners are learning ONE set of math operations, not 12. The amazing similarity between all of these forms encourages the learners to actually look at the math and ask “what is the same, what is different” and STOP thinking “all of this is different each time.” It takes some work, but the learners figure out that my 3 rules (the ONLY 3 rules I allow them to use/ write/ or say in class) are how ALL of these functions are solved. [make sure you read the comments too]

Also, shown (but not handed out) during the session was how I consolidate all of the maths for all of the functions and what I expect for every single function listed. It looks like this:


All of the links for the handouts and materials are on the TwitterMathCamp Wiki site. If you want this handout or any other handouts from TMC, please feel free to download them.

My goal with this process is getting the learners to think of math as ONE body of knowledge and not a segmented series of things we memorize. We LEARN how to factor, how to graph, how to identify points on a graph, and we USE that same knowledge over and over again.

I have had some success with this last year and I am looking forward to doing it again and blogging about it as I go. Yes this means I am planning on blogging more. That is one goal I have for the year. It was created because of this article on the secret to writing. (hint, there isn’t one.)


Mar 072014

My goals:

  1. Construct a consistent vocabulary of problems that can begin in Algebra 1 and extend through to Calculus, Statistics, and all courses in between.
  2. The problems must have the potential to be engaging to learners.
  3. The problems must hit at least 4 of the eight Mathematical Practices & high school math standards (CCSS).

My idea started with this idea for Algebra 2: Model the escape velocity of a rocket on the Moon and the Earth. ( PDF and Word DOCX) This ended up being a far more difficult task than I expected, mainly because the learners did not connect the idea of writing the equation of a line with the fact we had a function in front of us.

I Desmosed the project for a visual display, and we spent another day discussing it and achieved the goal. [Is it okay to use the name as a verb? I don’t care, I am doing it anyway.]  It turned out great in the end, but it made me start thinking hard about how to connect Algebra 1 through Calc and Stats and make the ideas more real, more understandable, and more connected.

From there came the idea of using an “off the shelf” structure in a new or different manner to extend the lessons. Enter http://graphingstories.com . Dan Meyer started the Graphing Stories with a long time ago, and they are awesome. But they also fit the idea of using the video / graph combination to write the equations of lines and finding area under the curves.

With that in mind, I offer the following Desmos files:

File 1:

  1. This uses the Graphing Story of water being poured into a graduated cylinder to create the graph. I took some points from the graph on screen, and wrote a function that goes through the point (0, 0) because we know it was empty at time 0.
  2. Notice that the line does not go through exactly all 4 points! That allows for discussion of variability and observation skills.
  3. I also used the (h, k) form to write the function f(x) because it is the easiest way to show the line.
  4. What does the slope MEAN?  A standard AP Statistics interpretation is: As the time increases by 1 second, the water increases by 40.67ml.
  5. Next, find the area under the curve. Move the slider for “b” to the right and you see the area highlighted.  Okay, standard triangle, ½ b*h, and you get 5205.33 ml*sec. ??? What does that even mean?
    1. It is called “absement” and it is the time-integral of displacement. Yes, we don’t need to discuss that for Algebra 1, but as teachers we should know it.
    2. The area is the sum of all the instantaneous moments of water before. With the Desmosed file, you can see and clearly communicate what it means. It means that you are adding up the area of the little triangle when b=1 with the larger triangle when b=1.5, and then with b=2, etc. Except the area is the sum of the instantaneous areas, not the discrete areas.

Notice that this one lesson required the learner to interpret a real life action, pouring water, into a graph, and then find the slope and write the equation of a line, and then interpret the slope, and then find the area under the curve.

These are all essential skills of the Calculus learner, done at the Algebra 1 level!

A second one.

  1. Now we are removing cups from a scale.  There are actually several questions that the video brought to my mind, like is this really a continuous line, or should it be more discrete? Time is continuous, but the weights really are stepped.  But, I left it as is though because I wanted to not change it from what the video shows. That is a larger conversation in class.
  2. We now have a negative slope to calculate, which does not really make a huge difference for interpreting the slope: As the time increases by 1 second, the weight of the cups decreases by 3 grams.
  3. The fact the line only hits 1 point absolutely creates some conversation about which point to pick, variability, ect.
  4. The area gets fun, however.
  5. Notice that the FULL area is still a triangle. However, if you move the “b” slider across, you notice the partial areas, the area at 5 seconds, 8 seconds, etc, are trapezoids! Now the learner can be challenged and pushed to incorporate some extra questions of find the area of trapezoids.
  6. We still are doing and absement calculation and not a displacement calculation.

Finally, the Desmosed Lunar Modeling I started with:

It is far more complex and involved, but that is why it is an Algebra 2 lesson and not an Algebra 1 lesson.